Anne Hodges had been coming to the Wenallt since she was a youngster. It was late afternoon as her wellies crunched through the leaves on the winding path. Scattered across the forest floor were shiny conkers and plump, pregnant berries. Broken twigs, torn from the branches during the great storm that had passed through the previous week, lay littered along the sides of the path.
The carefree memories of summer had now faded and the late afternoon sunshine filtered through the golden leaves. As Anne wound her way through the generations of trees, she took a big lungful of fresh autumn air. Up ahead, her two grandchildren were scurrying about, leaping through the mud and leaves.
Anne liked to reminisce as she walked, but her thoughts were suddenly cut short.
“Hello!” came a small voice from behind her. Anne spun around to see a young girl, maybe 12 years of age, standing a few meters away down the path. Anne recognised her instantly. “It’s me!” called the girl.
“Oh, hello again,” said Anne. “How are you today?”
The girl began walking up the incline towards Anne. “I’m doing just fine. What are you up to today?”
Anne smiled. She enjoyed chatting to the girl. She reminded her of herself. “I’m out with the grandchildren today,” Anne replied. “They’re off school, I’m doing some babysitting, so I thought I’d give them some fresh air.”
“It’s gorgeous up here, isn’t it?” said the girl as she approached Anne.
Anne hadn’t seen the girl for a while. Every time she saw her, she looked the same – a rather tall, lanky girl with red hair like Anne’s. She wore a simple green dress and her hair in plaits. Her large pair of wellies rode up to her knees.
“Aren’t you cold?” asked Anne.
“I don’t feel the cold,” replied the girl as she arrived at Anne.
“I like coming here throughout the year,” said Anne. “It’s nice to be able to see all the different seasons and everything changing. Do you want to walk with me?”
“That’d be lovely,” said the girl. “I promise not to go on about boys this time though.”
Anne chuckled. “You can talk about whatever you want. I love being reminded about what you’ve been up to. My memory’s not what it used to be!”
The pair began walking, their feet crunching the bronze leaves underfoot. The amber autumn sun carved through the trees and lit the path in front of them.
Up ahead, just off the forest path, Anne’s grandchildren were exploring the forest bed.
“What are their names?” asked the girl.
“Violet and Barney,” said Anne.
“They’re good kids. I remember doing the exact same thing up here when I was their age.”
The girl smiled. “Yes. Me too. I was up here with Mum…”. The girl stopped smiling and looked down at the forest floor. She went quiet and Anne felt something wasn’t quite right.
“Are you OK?” asked Anne.
Anne stopped in her tracks and looked at the girl. She was still looking at the floor.
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
Anna sighed. “I know that face. I’ve seen it before. What’s bothering you?”
The girl looked up at Anne. “Promise not to tell anyone?”
“It’s Mum. I’m worried about her.”
“What are you worried about?”
“Since Dad’s gone, she’s been trying to be both parents. She’s trying to work and look after us and there’s no one helping her. I’m worried for her.” The girl’s gaze wandered into the forest.
Anne smiled a tight smile. “I understand. It must be hard.”
“She gets so stressed, trying to do it all. And sometimes it feels that she doesn’t have the time to be her true self.”
“Look at me,” Anne ordered gently. The girl looked back at Anne.
Anne smiled a wide smile. “Everything’s going to be OK. I know it doesn’t look like it right now, but I promise you, it’ll all be OK.”
The girl didn’t look convinced. Anne continued.
“Do you remember when I was going through a bad patch and you once told me that everything was going to be OK? Do you remember?”
The girl nodded.
“Well. Look at me now. Here I am, able to walk through the woods with my two beautiful grandchildren.”
Their moment was broken by a call up ahead.
“Nan! Come on! Who are you talking to?” called Barney. Violet stood next to him, both waiting for Anne’s response.
Anne looked at the girl and smiled.
“He’s such a character,” she said to the girl. “They both are!”
“Nan!” called Barney again.
“I’m coming now,” reassured Anne.
Barney stood there for a few moments, looking back at his grandmother. He finally gave up, shrugged his shoulders to Violet, turned, and continued his exploration on the forest floor.
Anne and the girl set off again behind the children.
“Do you remember that time when we saw fairies here?” asked the girl.
“Oh yes!” said Anne. “How could I forget that? They weren’t far from here, were they?”
The girl pointed to a dense gathering of trees far into the forest. “Yes. I think they were over there somewhere. Do you still believe in them?”
“Of course!” beamed Anne. “Just because I’m older, doesn’t mean that I don’t believe.”
“Would you still like to be my age?” asked the girl.
“I’m not sure. In many ways, it was easier at your age. But I’ve met a lot of incredible people, done some amazing things, and made lots of wonderful memories along the way. You’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
“That’s lovely,” said the girl.
“Do you know what the strange thing is?” continued Anne. “A different version of you exists in the minds of everyone you’ll ever meet or interact with. Unfortunately, that version is sometimes not the best version. Sometimes, that’s just the legacy we leave. And sometimes, we need to accept that and do better. We could disappear in an instant and that version of yourself is the one that people will be left with. Do your best every day and don’t waste time beating yourself up about your mistakes. We all make them. We learn nothing from success – just the failures.”
The girl smiled. “Thank you.” The pair walked on in silence for a while before the girl posed another question for Anne.
“Do you have any regrets?”
“Only that I avoided being my authentic self for so long,” replied Anne. “I did what everyone expected of me. I always remember Aunty Joan persistently asking whether I had a boyfriend or whether I was getting married. She kept asking me but do you know what? It was none of her bloody business what I was doing with my life!
“You can’t change the people around you but you can change the people around you,” Anne concluded. The girl pondered over that for a moment before its meaning dawned on her.
“Yes. I like that. I’ll try and remember that.”
Evening was falling and the colder air seeped through to Anne’s skin. She zipped her big coat up to her neck.
“I’d better go,” said Anne. “The kids have raced ahead. I’ll lose them at this rate and it’ll be dark soon. I’ve got a nice beef joint cooking in the oven for when we get home. The kids love that.”
“That’s OK. It’s been nice catching up with you,” replied the girl. “I’ll head back this way,” she said, and began walking back down the path where they had come from. “Maybe we’ll catch up again at some point soon?” said the girl, stopping to say goodbye.
“That’d be nice. I enjoy our little chats. Before you go,” said Anne, “I want you to know that you’ll be OK. There will be tough times, of course. Life isn’t meant to be easy. But you’ll do just fine. When life does get tough, just remember that every storm passes. There will be those who just want to take from you. Free yourself from those people. You’ll find yourself a wonderful husband, you’ll have some amazing children – and then, one day, you’ll end up with these.”
Anne pointed to Barney and Violet, far off in the distance. Up ahead on the forest track, a large twig in his hand, Barney had stopped and was looking back at his grandmother. She was standing entirely alone, looking way down the darkening forest path behind her.
“Come on Nan. Who are you talking to? There’s no one even there!” he called, his words bouncing off the trees and evaporating into the cool evening air.
Anne cast one last lingering look at the girl. It was like looking at a younger version of herself. In many ways, it was.
“I kept telling you everything would be OK in the end, didn’t I?” called the girl as she walked off.
Anne smiled, and then nodded.
“Yes. You did. I should have listened to you.”
Anne turned back to her grandchildren to answer Barney’s question. She smiled.
“Just talking to myself,” she mused.